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Don’t Let the Peanuts Run Your Life.©

By on February 2, 2008 – 9:03 am  19 Comments

David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.



I love peanuts. I like them salted or unsalted. I like them sweet or savory. You can put them in my dinner or in my dessert. I never met a peanut I didn’t like. It is a joy to eat peanuts!

It’s also a challenge to eat peanuts. Peanuts pack a caloric punch. Too many peanuts per day and you have to loosen your belt. One day I decided to reduce my peanut intake. I resolved not to eat peanuts after dinner, or for a late night snack.

So, the next night I had dinner. And sure enough, I had a thought to eat some peanuts. But I reminded myself that I had decided not to eat peanuts. So I did not eat peanuts.

And then it happened. An hour later I was standing in my kitchen with salt on my lips, peanuts in my mouth, and another load ready to go. But, I did not remember opening the cabinet, reaching down to the bottom shelf, grabbing the peanut jar – okay, the peanut tub – and putting a handful of delicious peanuts in my mouth. It was only after I stuck my hand in the tub of peanuts a second time I thought, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! How did this happen? How did I end up here?!”

Psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia explains this phenomenon with a metaphor he calls the “Rider and the Elephant.” In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, and in his earlier research papers, Haidt described how the “rider” is our conscious mind, and the “elephant” is our unconscious mind. We are constantly trying to guide our body and thoughts in the direction we want them to go. The challenge is, as Haidt’s metaphor illustrates, when an elephant is determined to go somewhere, it will, rider in tow.

Now take my peanut example to another level. What if you want to change something important in your life? If you decide that you are going to do something differently, but you are not aware of what is happening below the surface, in your unconscious, how will you succeed? The answer is “you won’t.”

Haidt warns, “The rider can’t just decide to change and then order the elephant to go along with the program. Lasting change can come only by retraining the elephant, and that’s hard to do.” The key to achieving new and important things in your life is to find out what is unconsciously limiting you and then replace it with a belief that will enable your success.

Your most potent levers of sustainable change are your beliefs. Uncover your beliefs and you will find out why you do what you do. You will learn more about your “elephant.”

So here’s one approach to drawing out your beliefs. Start by identifying an important and big goal in your life and how soon you would like to reach it. Make sure this goal would change your life dramatically if you achieved it.

Now grab a pen and answer these questions. What will I gain if I achieve my goal? What will I have to do to accomplish my goal? What will I have to give up to reach my goal? What will happen if I fail to meet my goal?

Start each of your answers with “I believe I…” to help elicit your beliefs. Now look at your answers. These are some of the beliefs you hold relative to your goal. The question, then, is which of these beliefs will help you achieve your goal and which ones will hold you back. Your success in life depends on your ability to uncover and change your limiting beliefs to those that will fire you up and bring out your greatness.

Don’t let the peanuts run your life.

© 2008 David J. Pollay




Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Peanuts courtesy of psyberartist


  • Chris says:

    Thanks David for more great thoughts. It’s a funny coincidence that I just started rereading The Happiness Hypothesis the other day. The rider and the elephant is a very useful metaphor, and learning how to control the elephant is a very important thing to be able to do, because I find that a lot of what I do daily is on “autopilot.” Setting that “autopilot” to productive tasks is a very exciting idea!

  • Happy Saturday PPND Readers!

    For another great look at the application of Haidt’s “Rider and the Elephant” metaphor, read Dave Shearon’s post this past August. He focuses the metaphor on leaders.

    Senia Maymin suggests a powerful strategy for working with your “elephant” in her post last March.

    Have a wonderful day everyone!

    David J. Pollay

  • Hi Chris,

    Good morning to you! Isn’t it amazing how much we do on autopilot?! It is exciting to uncover where our autopilot is working well and where we have an opportunity to re-pogram our autopilot to better meet our goals in life.

    Have a great day!


  • Cari Jackson Lewis says:

    Hello David – You have really opened Pandora’s box with this stimulating and quietly provocative article. What happens if we really implement your suggestions? How will we be able to continue blaming other people and situations for “holding us back” if we aggressively tackle our goals and work on them? How will we continue to find excuses for our failures if we now know exactly how to succeed? The ramifications of your article are profound, indeed. You are moving us out of our self-serving and sometimes self-destructive comfort zones and into an unknown and frightening world of risk. By creating a sensible plan for success, we nonetheless risk failure – and that is the thing that we fear most of all. Your introspective article shines a spotlight on “the elephant in the room” — fear of failure (and its converse, fear of success) — and makes us focus on the things keeping us from achieving our goals. Thank you, once again, for your help. – CJL

  • Sulynn says:

    Hi David! Coincidentally I attended a parenting workshop today coz EJ is into this SuperKids workshop thing and the presenter was talking about our self-limiting beliefs needing replacement with powerful empowering beliefs. There I was thinking I should tell him about Jon Haidt and (my fav) Rider & Elephant metaphor. This metaphor is so simple that even kids find it easy to understand and apply to their own situations. EJ loves it and refers to it often as if the Elephant really lives within. Hugs, Sulynn

  • Manny says:

    Great post. Beliefs are indeed “the elephant in the room”. They are in a sense the “ocean” that our goals swim in. Perhaps that is why even a small success can lead to a larger one: we can thereby acquire a belief that we are empowered, even by a small success. And this belief is a “fuel” for greater success. Sometimes I think the search for big victories, rather than steady incremental ones, can be more harmful than helpful, because failures can be set up instead of small successes, which, of course, could be the seeds of greater successes.

  • Melanie says:

    David-Great article as usual! Let’s not forget however, that even after the elephant is trained to go in the “right” direction, occasionally we have an elephant out of control doing its’ own thing again. But don’t lose heart and for heaven’s sake don’t beat yourself up about it. Just be thankful that you noticed you were “in that place” again ie: the peanut jar, and move on…earnestly and thoughtfully to the next victory–which you will undoubtedly achieve.

  • Timothy says:

    Thanks David! Really glad to read this, especially when I am a bit lost recently – I am confused about the important and big goals in my life that I had identified before.

    It is very true that BELIEFS can help bring about changes, guide our behaviour and clarify our thoughts and directions… like ehat Anatole France said – “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe”

    My question is – but what if people have listed their “I believe I…” statements as well as figured out their life-long missions and goals, and in turn (say after few years) find out that these are probably not what they want? Have you come across cases like this? I sincerely appreciate your any sharing and advice 🙂 thanks!


  • Halle says:

    Hello David! Once again, words of wisdom, and a lot to think about. Thank you for the great article!

  • mikey says:

    Wow, you hit the nail on the head with this one, my brother. There are many times when I find myself breaking a recently acquired “cardinal rule” and thinking what the hey! Thanks for your advice on training that elephant. Now, what do you have for monkeys on the back. Wait, I get it. The peanuts are the monkey….thanks again,

  • Lillian says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the insiteful article, and the practical suggestions for tapping into the unconscious. We often take our beliefs for granted without exploring them in depth. You have helped us understand the power of the unconscious. We can accomplish our goals, and more by digging “deep” within ourselves and using that most valuable resource, the unconscious. Thanks again…you have sent me to the library to learn more about the unconscious. Learning is fun and you certainly have the gift of inspiration. Many thanks David, Lillian

  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Sulynn,

    Great to hear from you! The parenting workshop sounds great; they were giving great advice! And EJ is a wise young woman (who has a wise young mom!).

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Thanks Mikey for the fun and meaningful post!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Thank you Halle! And thanks for your support!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Cari,

    Your post gets right to the core of the article! We all fear to some degree what we do not know. Even success brings change and introduces new opportunities and challenges that we have not yet experienced; this naturally causes some fear in us. And of course the fear of failure looms large. The best antidote to these challenges is to have a mission that is so meaningful that it gives us the courage to navigate our uncertainty and keep moving forward toward our goals.

    Thanks Cari as always for your thoughtful post!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Manny,

    Great point! You summarized a key strategy that we focus on at The Momentum Project ( What can you do everyday to keep your momentum going? Frequent small victories over time add up to great achievements. When you look at the success stories of notable figures, they rarely win the lottery to achieve their success. They take the deliberate steps you suggest are needed to achieve victory.

    Thanks Manny for a great post!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Thanks Melanie! You are absolutely right! The first key is to gain awareness of your elephant. Then you work on re-training where it will have a positive impact on your life. And then, as you point out, we’ll slip from time to time. It’s just the slide we want to avoid!

    Thanks again for the post!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Thanks Lillian! It is exciting when we learn more about our beliefs and how we can change the unhelpful ones! Enjoy all of your learning!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Great questions Timothy!

    You bet. I am a case in point. I think back to when I thought I was going to play professional football (and only played one year in college); I had certain beliefs and certain goals. I switched directions with my life and my beliefs changed. I then worked for an international organization and traveled to almost 30 countries ( My beliefs and goals changed again. I then worked for corporations like MasterCard and Yahoo! and my beliefs evolved again. And now I run my own company, I have been married for nine years, have two little girls, and my beliefs are evolving again.

    You’re on the right path. The key is to get clear about what is important to you. What do you care about? What do you want to achieve now that you are older and wiser? And then take a look at the beliefs you would need to have in order to achieve your new direction.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Best to you,


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